How do you turn one of literature’s greatest tragedies into a raucous comedy? Very carefully.
I read Madame Bovary in high school, and while it’s been (ahem) a few decades since I’ve thought of it in depth, I have fond memories of the novel, the sympathetic title character, and the urgency of her plight. Author Gustave Flaubert faced an obscenity trial in France after the book’s publication in 1856, and that’s probably due as much for the story’s then-shocking plot – a woman in a loveless marriage has affairs in order to find the romance she’s long missed – as for the vivid (for its time) way in which Flaubert made the reader feel all of Emma Bovary’s pleasure, pain and anguish. And its themes, including the subjugation and helplessness of women in a patriarchal society, are as relevant today as they were in the 19th century.
In short, Madame Bovary is not the type of story that screams out for a comic adaptation. (Emma does play a central role in Woody Allen’s comic masterpiece “The Kugelmass Episode,” but that’s a short story, not a full-length adaptation.) But Madame Bovary also is not the type of story that readers have come to cherish; these days, its title is more familiar than its plot. A few minutes into Curio Theatre Company’s production of The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary, the actors stop the action and ask the audience members to raise their hands if they’d read the book. I raised mine – but I only saw one other person do it.
That widespread unfamiliarity has given the British comedy troupe Peepolykus (pronounced “people like us”) free rein to concoct an irreverent stage adaptation, now receiving its American premiere in Curio’s production. (The script is credited simply to Peepolykus.) But while the show’s comedic attitude is refreshing, its absurdity never quite meshes with the somber elements of the story.
There is a lot of comedy in The Massive Tragedy…, but most of it has little or nothing to do with the novel’s plot. The show opens with a newly added framing device about a pair of ratcatchers (yes, ratcatchers) who come to Emma’s rural French village to do their work… except they don’t have any arsenic to kill the rats. (Those who know the book, or its movie adaptations, will know why arsenic is important to the plot.) Instead, the ratcatchers are armed with multiple types of cheese to catch the rats. This plays off clichés about the French and their love of cheese; before long there are characters singing “Frère Jacques” and spouting lines like “Sacre bleu!” and “Eiffel Tower!” The more comic characters speak in exaggerated French accents (and wear strapped-on oversize mustaches), while the main characters don’t speak in French accents at all. (One character is Spanish and speaks with a Castilian lisp… because the show’s creators felt like mocking another ethnic group for a change, I suppose.) There are also anachronistic references to French and American pop singers, and even to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Some of these jokes are quite funny, but most of the laughs come from corny jokes with little connection to Emma Bovary’s story. There are also several moments where the actors “stop the show” for various reasons – for example, to explain the framing device, or to argue with each other about the issues the story raises (“You can’t be so reductive with this book,” somebody says). These meta-theatrical moments are supposedly improvised (and even feature the actors being addressed with their real names), but they never seem remotely convincing.
Occasionally the plot of Madame Bovary intrudes, and at times it’s even dealt with sensitively. But the comic moments that find their way into the story – like having Emma’s father celebrate his recovery from surgery by tap dancing across a barnyard, or showing Emma and her lover in preposterously acrobatic (though fully clothed) sex positions – feel forced, out of step with the plot’s tender tone.
John Bellomo’s direction pulls out all the stops, barreling through the material quickly. But at the performance I attended, Aetna Gallagher, playing Emma, was having a hard time keeping up with the relentless pace, repeatedly fumbling her lines. She also comes off as too hard-edged and jaded for the the role of an innocent convent-educated lass. (Gallagher also designed the excellent, versatile costumes.)
Three other actors fill out the ensemble; together, all four play dozens of roles. Andrew Blasenak is Emma’s straitlaced husband Charles, acting both proper and properly silly. Chase Byrd plays everything from the lisping Spaniard to both of Emma’s lovers; his approach to the latter roles provide the show with its most grounded performances. And Doug Greene plays everything from an evil merchant to an adenoidal teenager. All three show a fine facility with voices and quick changes in characterization. And all three get a chance to perform in drag, which shows off Peepolykus’ ties to British theatrical traditions.
Paul Kuhn’s set design is filled with chalkboards that serve as doors and walls; when Emma draws a knife and a fork on a board, we know she’s in the kitchen. It’s a witty concept that gives the show a distinctive visual style. And Conner Behm’s sound design is also impressive, with weather and nighttime sound effects employed well. But Robin Stamey’s lighting is inconsistent, with actors sometimes in half-shadows at inopportune moments.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary goes out of its way to be farcical and ridiculous. It succeeds, but its playful tone is out of sync with its story. I enjoyed it merry attitude and the skill with which Curio’s production is told.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary plays through May 20, 2017 at Curio Theatre Company, performing at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community – 4740 Baltimore Avenue in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 525-1350, or purchase them online.